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Book Review: The Myth and Reality of German Warfare

By HistoryNet Staff
2/23/2017 • Military History Book Reviews

The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking From Moltke the Elder to Heusinger, by Gerhard P. Gross, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2016, $50

Many military historians have addressed the course of German military campaigns from the mid-1860s to the mid-1940s as it emerged as a dominant power. But until now none had written a carefully thought-out study of the reasons why and how the nation came to develop the most formidable military machine of that era. The Myth and Reality of German Warfare examines the evolution of the German General Staff’s operational thinking from the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 through the modern Bundeswehr’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Written by a German historian, translated into English and edited by this magazine’s chief military historian, David T. Zabecki, the book examines the successes and failures of German operational planning in the management of five distinct armies.

For example, Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s general staff planned a string of crushing military campaigns that led to the defeat of Austria at Königgrätz in 1866. He was less successful when dealing with a “people’s war,” such as the one that followed the equally crushing defeat of the French army at Sedan in 1870. For while Königgrätz proved the decisive episode of its war and brought about Austria’s capitulation, even the capture of Emperor Napoléon III at Sedan did not result in France’s surrender. Instead, the defeat only stiffened French resolve, leading to a costly war of attrition that dragged on many months. The same pattern was repeated during both world wars, with the German army winning brilliant tactical victories but losing the broader strategic campaigns.

Gross suggests the Germans based their operational thinking on a geopolitical premise that hostile nations surrounded their country on all sides, making it mandatory they conduct military campaigns on multiple fronts at once. German planners’ realization their armies would inevitably be outnumbered under those circumstances in turn prompted their reliance on swift movement, maneuver and envelopment in hopes of bringing conflicts to a rapid conclusion. That objective was not always achievable.

The Myth and Reality of German Warfare is a scholarly work, directed as much toward students at military staff colleges as it is toward historians and laymen. It is in the end a fascinating study of how those at the highest levels of the German General Staff thought in the past—and still think today.

—Robert Guttman

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